Art and Christhood: The Aesthetics of Oscar Wilde

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Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, 1993 - Aestheticism (Literature) - 170 pages
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In this stimulating new study, Guy Willoughby suggests that Oscar Wilde's imaginative engagement with the figure of Jesus Christ, shorn of His attachment to ecclesiastical dogma, is a key to the coherence and import of the fin de siecle writer's aesthetics. Through a rigorous but elegant discourse on each of Wilde's major (and minor) works, Willoughby argues that the author's abiding ethical and aesthetic themes coalesce around the figure referred to in De Profundis as "the precursor of the Romantic movement in life." The works discussed in detail include the fairy tales, the Poems in Prose, The Picture of Dorian Gray, the poetic dramas, essays, and Wilde's juvenile and mature verse. In contrast to those critics who have dismissed Oscar Wilde's thematic confusion or contrivance, and his "aesthetic" disdain for "the world of actual existence" (as he called it), Guy Willoughby asserts that Wilde's most urgent, overriding interest was in the relationship of art to life - and that, ultimately, his concern was to merge the two constructs, to fuse the aesthetic impulse into a radical new mode of experience. In developing this radical impulse, which must strike a sympathetic chord in our contemporary, "postmodern" reevaluation of traditional boundaries, Willoughby finds that Wilde concretized his mature, reformulated aestheticism by rereading the mission and career of Christ. In one sense, Wilde's treatment of the numinous founder of Christianity recapitulates the search of nineteenth-century scholarship for the "historical Jesus," and Willoughby traces affinities in Wilde's work with the secular Christologies of Ernest Renan and Matthew Arnold. But in a strikingly contemporary sense Wilde looks forward to Paul Tillich or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for his Christ is an insistent iconoclast and systembreaker, his vision an impetus for a perpetual recasting of ethical or ideological distinctions. It is thus that the artist is Christ's most notable imitator, for in the Wildean schema art is a necessarily dangerous and disruptive force. Willoughby gives a full account of the extraordinary range of Wilde's generic and stylistic departures, and demonstrates that the complexity and surprise of these structural choices accords with the author's aesthetic project. In particular, Willoughby details Wilde's shrewd mining of strains in Western myth and symbolism, and the rich tension between Hellenic and Hebraic postures that is a vital dialogic force in his essays, plays and tales. Drawing on elements from myth and genre criticism, as well as literary theory, Guy Willoughby establishes Oscar Wilde as a seminal writer standing Janus-like between the Victorian and Modernist sensibilities, and a writer whose essays into aesthetic theory and practice are perhaps best appreciated today. This book marks an important juncture in our understanding of both Oscar Wilde and the radical aestheticism he initiated in British cultural debates.

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A Note on the Text
Christs Vision in A House
Jesus in The Soul of Man Under
Art Christ and the Self in The Picture of Dorian Gray
Modes of Christian Imitation
Christ and the Meaning of Sorrow
Christ in The Ballad
Christ and Postlapsarian Ethics in Poems
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